Noisy, smelly, dirty, crowded, commerce, smog, messy, hot, slums, traffic infarct, concrete and asphalt desert, humid, business at every corner, most dirty, stinking klongs... welcome to Bangkok!
Thailand's center of commerce, a huge area crowded with business, business, business and more business, not a square centimeter is spared and free of business. Here, in the center, it becomes most clearly that business kills anything else. This place is not built for living beings, not for humans nor can live many animals in the concrete and asphalt jungle anymore. Except bacterias, viruses, cockroaches, rats, some house cats, dogs (among them estimated hundreds of thousands of strayers), in the parks here and there a squirrel and a few kinds of birds who are masters of survival and manage to live from rubbish, the city is free of animals.
People's life is though, too. All the pollution and the stress, much traffic even in the smallest lanes - one never can be save not to be hit by a vehicle of any kind outside. They go anywhere. Even in notorious Khao San Road, where all the backpackers stay around and which is a road crammed with shops over shops over shops and shoppers over shoppers over shoppers, cars and 'tuk-tuk's' (motorcycle rikshas) pass through the crowd all the time. The shops sell tons over tons of cheap, ridiculous crap, mostly clothes and jewellery, but it's a challenge to find something useful, practical- let's say just a pair of simple trousers, without advertisments on it or any pictures or a shrill design. Difficult to find, nowadays. Fashion designer is a really poor profession. There are travel agencies, tatoo shops, massage parlours, food stalls and bigger restaurants, etc.
All this crowd everywhere, all this traffic, no or much to small sidewalks for pedestrians, crammed with more shops and foodstalls all the way, the permanent din, the heat, the air pollution, that's exhausting and depressing. All the people have only in mind either to buy/consume or to sell anything. It's like in an ant heap. An everyday crawling for making money and spending money. Bangkok is an urban nightmare of a huge scale.
The Role of City States
Southeast Asian history is coined by city states, who control territory around the town's core. These cities competed with each other and partially conquered other cities and made them tributaries. A full incorporation into the victorious city state was always difficult, if not impossible. It was always so that tributaries tried to gain independence. Often they were also conquered by other, rival city states and became tributaries of them.
The establishment of civilizations was done by dynasties with most powerful godkings as their ruling representatives. These despotic rulers were in command of the workforce which was used to establish hydraulic civilizations who could grew much bigger than less organized communities. The workforce was first employed for irrigation purposes, the construction of greater canal systems who not only allowed a much larger food production, but was also used as a mean of flood control and later as a transport system. The experiences made in the canal constructions were then used to build city walls and then temples, of who some became very sophisticated and large. The large surplus in food production was so used to feed the workforce and later, more and more a growing army. The army was not only a force to protect the city but also to expand the state power. Victorious armees brought slaves as workforce; the slaves were employed for the heaviest, unhealthiest work. The classic examples for hydraulic civilizations are the very first civilizations in history, those in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and at the Yangze River. Angkor is a classical hydraulic civilization, a typical example of an Oriental despoty, although a historical late-comer in the 9th century CE. Siam/Thailand, including the historical line from Ayutthaya to Bangkok, follow very much the Angkorean example. (See also: Karl A. Wittfogel - Oriental Despotism - A Comparative Study of Total Power)
However, the city was always the primary center of the state, and all the territories and tributaries, even when the state grew very big, remained periphery. All the political activities, the wealth and the glory of the state concentrated in the capital. This pattern shines through until today. Bangkok is not only by distance the biggest city in the country (for times it was 40 times as big as Chiang Mai, the second biggest city in Thailand), it's the economic and political center of the state and represents the state much more than any other place. It was only in the verylast decades, that in other province capitals a wealthy class of businesspeople grew up who claim more participation in political and economic decisions.
A History of Bangkok
Bangkok has a long history as a seaport at the mouth of the Chao Praya River at the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Centuries ago Thonburi, now a part of Bangkok, was close to the seaside; nowadays, due to silt sedimentation, the open sea is 30km further south.
The name Bangkok is the oldest name for the settlement on the eastern bank of the Chao Praya River, opposite to Thonburi. It's meaning is translatable to 'village of the plums', for 'bang' means 'village' and 'kok' is a certain kind of plum who, seemingly, grew at the place in former times in a certain amount.
When the first Europeans, Portuguese, appeared in Siam in 1509, they founded a trade post in Ayutthaya. The first time that Bangkok appeared in a western document is a Portuguese map of 1511. In 1622 a small Dutch trade post, called Fort Amsterdam, was placed here at the banks of Chao Phraya River.
Thonburi was of strategical importance for the Siamese empire of Ayutthaya. In Thonburi, since long joined with Bangkok now, were military fortifications. In the late 17th century there was even a French fortification, granted by king Narai. After the palace revolution in 1688 the French, who in that time already tried to colonialize Siam, were driven out of the country by a new king, together with most of the other Westerners who lived in that time in the western communities a bit outside of Ayutthaya.
For more information on that have a look at 'A Depiction of Siam' by Simon de la Loubere and the articles on 'Ayutthaya' and 'Lopburi', which served as a second capital in that time.
Though, Thonburi remained small, although it grew more and more to a trade harbour and more and more important stopover on the way to the Siamese capital riverupwards. Bangkok remained meaningless until the aftermath of the 'big bang' in Thai history, when a Burmese army sacked Ayutthaya and destroyed it almost down to the ground (1767 CE). Siamese general Taksin, later king Taksin, gathered remaining Siamese forces and organized the foundation of a new capital at Thonburi in 1772. Taksin had a small palace in Thonburi, and still existing Wat Arun (temple of dawn) at the easter river banks, served as the state temple. For a short time, the famous emerald Buddha, conquered in Vientiane, in that time, was placed in Wat Arun as well.
After Taksin was overthrown himself by another general, Chao Phraya Chakri, who became later crowned as king Yodfa (Rama I) of the contemporary royal dynasty, the capital was moved across the river in 1782. The new center was the place of and around the grand palace, covered by three sides of the river. A canal (klong lot) was built to make it an artificial island (called Rattanakosin Island). Rattanakosin became designed after the model of the fallen former capital Ayutthaya.
Bangkok's name was changed in that time in 'Krung Thep', means 'city of angels'. That's how the Thai People call the capital, and it's just a stump of the longest name of a city on earth. In fact Bangkok's official Thai name is so long that I could fill a complete chapter on this website with it. I better spare that. However, internationally known is the city still by it's old name Bangkok.
From now on Bangkok's history was a long history of building activities and growth. The surroundings were mostly marshland and many canals were built crisscrossing the swamps. The canals were the main traffic routes, according to a long tradition. Floating markets were common. Bangkok got in the 19th century a recommendation as the Venice of the east among Westerners. Nevertheless, from around 1900 on the klongs were more and more filled up and replaced by an expanding roadnet. The nowadays remaining klongs are just a small fraction of the former number. That's certainly one reason for the floods here who appear every few years. Another reason for that is the deforestation upwards the Chao Phraya River and it's tributaries.
It's worth to point out how late Bangkok got a half-way decent roadnet. The Westerners who came here in the 19th century to make business or as diplomats or sailors complained about the lack of any decent road in the city. It was king Mongkut who undertook the first initiative to build roads who were considerably better than the shabby, filthy lanes who exclusively existed mostly parallel to the klongs until then. What is now Rama IV Road was probably the first proper road in Bangkok, followed by Chaoren Krung (New Road), which was built in 1861. King Mongut lived until 1868 und started to establish a roadnet connected by bridges. His successor king Chulalongkorn continued the efforts. The first bridge over the Chao Phraya River was Memorial Bridge. It was hard to establish a sustainable fundament on the swampy marshlands. At the beginning the landfill material was taken from other buildingsites where new canals were dug out. When we see how Bangkok's crowded roadnet appears nowadays we can barely believe how it looked here just a 150 years ago.
The great building boom started in the 1960s and 70s. The big highways were built and more and more people from rural Thailand moved into the capital on the search for making a living. Thailand enjoyed a great financial investment from the USA, who prepared the country as a base for the attacks on it's eastern neighbours Laos, Cambodia and particularly Vietnam.
More growth happened from the 1980s on, together with the construction of the many skyscrapers who coin contemporary downtown Bangkok nowadays. Bangkok became one of the biggest cities in the world. The economic boom lasted until the Asian crisis in 1997/98.
The whole growth of the city since the starting boom in the 1960s happened actually without any kind of proper city planning. A wild, uncontrolled growth along newly built roads appeared, as it is to see in so many Southeast Asian towns and cities. With the city grew the slums.
Sigths of Bangkok
So, the city has it's attractions. Thailand has an interesting history, and a good deal of historical places in Bangkok are worth a visit. The historical city center is, as mentioned above, Rattanakosin Island. Near to touristic Khao San Road is the Grand Palace situated, dating back to the foundation time of modern Siam/Thailand in the years from 1782 on. Here are the three most representative Thai temples among the other 400 temples in the city. It's Wat Phra Kaeo, which is housing the emerald Buddha, Wat Mahathat with a Buddhist 'university', and Wat Pho, the biggest and oldest temple in Bangkok with the reclining Buddha in it.
Rattanakosin Island and Rattanakosin Era
Rattanakosin has two meanings. Rattanakosin Island is the very foundation area of modern Bangkok in a slope of the eastern banks of Chao Phraya River. It's an artificial island, which is bordered by the river and an artificial canal. Rattanakosin is therefore the historical center of the city with the Grand Palace compound, a large number of buddhist temples and many other historical buildings. The term roots in the Sanskrit word 'ratnakosindra', means 'Indras Jewel'.
The move from Thonburi at the Chao Phraya's western bank to Rattanakosin was reasoned with an enhanced safety. The Siamese' arch enemy, the Burmese, would have to cross the river first in case of an attack. However, the trauma of the downfall of Ayutthaya didn't repeat; the Burmese power faded away in the 19th century in the wars with Britain.
Another reason of a new palace foundation may have been to symbolize a break between the new dynasty and former king Taksin, who was assassinated. Taksin's wooden palace building in Thonburi, Derm Palace, who was in direct neighbourhood to Wat Arun, was situated in a way which didn't allow further expansion.
The outer canal, nowadays Bang Lamphu and Ong Ang Canal, was dug out in 1785 by thousands of Laotion prisoners of war. The canal was paralleled by a high brick wall, which does not exist anymore. Among the last remains of it is Phra Sumen Fortress.
Rattanakosin is also termed a historical era in Siamese/Thai history. Rattanakosin Era started in 1782 CE with the inthronation of king Rama I (Yotfa) of the Chakri Dynasty in the foundation of the new palace. Since the era is bound to the ruling dynasty, it's still lasting.
The Grand Royal Palace of Bangkok
Fifteen years after Ayutthaya's downfall begun the construction of a new Grand Palace at the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. This palace for the Siamese royalty was designed after the same pattern as the former palace in Ayutthaya, Wang Luang, was. On June 10th, 1782, king Yotfa (Rama I) of the Chakri Dynasty moved in a ritual drive over the Chao Phraya River into the new complex. The Grand Palace of Bangkok served as royal Thai residence in the time between 1782 to 1934, when the royal family left Siam, respectively 1946, when king Bhumibol finally decided to change the residence to Chitralada Palace. After the military coup of 1932 and the abolition of absolute monarchy in Thailand, all state agencies were removed of the palace.
Being one of the most famous tourist sites of Thailand and partially a large museum, the Grand Palace is not only a historical site, but still in use for several annual royal ceremonies and other state functions. There are also still a few royal offices situated in the palace area.
The area was naturally swampy and had to be drained by canals. Another reason for Ong Ang Canal, which borders Rattanakosin Island to the east, is that the new capital should be a revival of Ayutthaya, which was also surrounded by water.
A small community of wealthy Chinese merchands lived on the ground at that time. They had to move into a new suburb which is now known as Sampeng, Bangkok's Chinatown along Thanon Yaowarat. The first, temporary palace buildings were made of wood and leaves. A massive, wooden palisade encircled the compound at the beginning. Later, the palisades were replaced by a high brick wall over 1,900m length. The building materials for the palace construction were brought by river ships from the ruins of Ayutthaya. Remarkably, the workers who brought the material from the old capital were ordered not to use stones from temple remains who were still partially intact. Most of the work in the first phase of the construction was done by conscripted and corvee labour.
The whole complex consists of a great number of different buildings on an areal of 2.6km2. Since the foundation in the 18th century many modifications were made and again and again new buildings were erected; the latest building has been inaugurated in the year 2006.
The palace complex consists mainly of three parts. Any of them was designed for the purposes of those who lived and worked there. In the inner court (wang nai) was the private residence of the king, some gardens and the villas of the queen and the many other royal wifes (chao chom). Except the king there lived only women, their kids and servants in the inner court, and it was guarded by female guards. The inner court was fascinating Western visitors until the 20th century and was often called the 'city of women'.
The outer court housed ministries, the treasure department and the royal guards. The central part consists itself of four complexes. In the south of the central part lies Wat Phra Kaeo Museum. It was originally built as a royal mint institution. The whole palace compound was designed in a way that the king never had to leave the palace grounds. To present himself to the people served a balcony.
The old temple Wat Potharam, directly south of the palace, got renovated and expanded and renamed in Wat Phra Chetuphon, still bettern known as Wat Pho.
North of the Grand Palace lies a huge, free area. That is Sanam Luang, the royal square. Occasionally, grand festivals happen here. It is also the place for the royal cremations.
In the 150 years between 1782 and 1932 the royal palace, who was addressed as the Grand Palace from 1851 on, was the administrative and religious center of Siam. The huge compound was the seat of the country's government with the monarch as the head of state, the royal family, ministers, officials, courtiers, servants, concubines, guards and craftsmen, altogether thousands of inhabitants. A particular set of palace laws was created to organize the life behind the palace walls. The Grand Palace was therefore a city within the city.
Visiting temples may be a pretty boring undertaking for many, but it's rewarded by many vivid temple paintings. Although it's written in the guide books, that there were some of the finest temple paintings of the country in Bangkok, I was disappointed by what I saw. In Wat Pho or Wat Borowinet the paintings are barely accessible (barred, one can not come close to most of them) and what I saw was severely faded out and needs defenitely a thorough restauration. The paintings I found in other parts of Thailand look partially much, much better, therefore most of them are clearly not of such a high artistic quality and rather painted in recent years.
The National Museum
Between the Grand Palace and Khao San district there is the national museum which is the largest in Southeast Asia, a national art gallery, the national theater and the national library.
Bangkok's National Museum was the first museum in Thailand. It consists of a number of different buildings. Originally, the place was occupied by Wang Na Palace, the palace of king Mongkut's viceroy (who was his younger brother). The main building, classical Thai style, was the viceroy's former reception hall, Siwamokhaphiman Hall. King Mongkut himself gained already a growing private collection which was set into an own building in the Grand Palace area; this building does not exist anymore.
Mongkut's successor Chulalongkorn opened in 1874 the first 'public' museum on Thai ground, also inside the Grand Palace area.
After the death of the viceroy, Wang Na Palace was not in use for decades, until king Chulalongkorn decided 1887 to move the museum's collection over.
After a time of neglect, the museum buildings were desolate, but restoration didn't happen until the early 1950s.
In direct neighbourhood to the National Museum lies Tha Phra Chan campus of Thammasat University. Thammasat is, besides Chulalongkorn University (founded in 1923, being the first and oldest university in Thailand), among the most reknowned universities of the country, and it's not a foundation by the king, but by a civil movement. The term 'thammasat' roots in the sanskrit word 'dharmasastra' and refers to the 'teaching of the dharma'. The dharma concerns a traditional ethic, religious, political and judiciary code.
The university's emblem shows Thailand's constitution, in the background a dharmachakra, the buddhist wheel of law. It represents both buddhist values and those of democracy. As an honourable act, at the university's 70th birthday in 2004, a ten bath coin with the Thammasat emblem was emitted.
From the foundation on, the philosophy of the university was to 'teach students to love and cherish democracy'. The philosophy involves the idea that the people have to be provided with education, which was limited in the founding time merely to the nobility.
As the university's father Pridi Banomyong is revered, of who is a statue erected on Tha-Phrachan Campus, close to the Chao Phraya River banks. Every year, Pridi's birthday is officially celebrated and students bring flowers and garlands to the memorial.
Faculties are law, politics, diplomacy, economy, trade, accountancy, sociology, journalism, masscommunication and more. In 1986 the university gained a new campus about 40km north of Bangkok (Rangsit) with faculties for natural sciences, technology and medicine. Meanwhile, most of the teachings happen out there.
Nowadays, Thammasat University has four campuses in other cities, what is Pattaya, Lampang, Udon Thani and Narathiwat.
Thammasat University is a member of LAOTSE, an international network of leading universities in Europe and Asia. There are numerous cooperations between Thammasat and European universities, like Sciences Po and HEC Paris, the university Lund, Nottingham, Cologne, Hamburg, Karlsruhe, Bielefeld, Munich, Darmstadt and more.
In World War II, the campus was used as an internment place for civilians from western countries who fought against the axis powers. The Thai guards rather protected the interned from Japanese abuses. The university also served as the secret headquarter of the Seri Thai (free Thai) movement, a resistance movement against the Japanese presence in Thailand.
In the 1970s, Thammasat University was an intellectual center for the progressive, democratic movement of the time in Thailand. The university played a key role in the people's uprise of 1973, when the military dictatorship under general Thanom Kittikachorn was overcome. Thammasat's then headmaster, Sanya Dharmasakti, became for a time Thailand's primeminister.
The democratic movement and the new headmaster Puey Ungphakorn were seen as the archenemy of the political right. They were denounced as radical communists and seen as a dangerous threat for the country. In August 1975 there was a first violent attack of the red giaurs, a right-wing boy scout organization, in which they tried to burn down university buildings.
In 1976, former military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn came back from exile and triggered mass demonstrations against him. The non-violent protests of the democratic left was brutally beaten down on October 6th 1976 by police, red giaurs, other right-wing and paramilitary groups and a savage, cheering mob of supporters and opportunists. The brutal attack was meaned to kill as many students and democracy activists as possible, and many, estimated more than a hundred, lost their lives, being massacred in a most barbarious manner.
The Thammasat massacre was maybe Thailand's darkest hour since the fall of Ayutthaya. Consequently, thousands of students joined the communist guerilla army who fought between the 1960s and 1980s against the Thai military.
In 1992, activists from Thammasat Universtity again played a key role in the opposition against the military government.
Since it's foundation in 1934, between 200,000 and 300,000 students have graduated here. Among them is a great number of people who made high careers in politics, administration or business. Puey Ungphakorn was the governor of the Bank of Thailand before he became dean of the faculty of economics and later university rector in the 1970s. Five of Thailand's primeministers did study here. Among them is Abhisit Vejjajiva, primeminister from 2008 to 2011.
The Amulet Market
Directly south of Thammasat University, between Chao Phraya River and Wat Mahathat, lies Bangkok's amulet market. It's not the only one in the city, but this one here is probably the largest in the whole country, and that means what. There are plenty of shops who display an enormous variety of amulets. Most of them are little monk images and Buddha statues one can wear around the neck; they come with a lot of other religious respectively semi-religious items like talismans against all kinds of evil, including mothers-in-law, with charms for business success or to help succeeding an examina. Also so called 'traditional medicine' is sold here. Unfortunately, that comes all too often with the exploitation and brutal killing and preparing of animal parts. Superstition is big business in a world in which most people are still very uneducated and have very little control over their lives and to fear many dangers, real or imagined.
Thailand's homes, offices and all other places where one goes, are equipped with plenty of figures and images of religious content. Take the spirit houses alone - there is practically no building in the whole country without a spirit house in the garden or inside. The spirit houses are often crammed with such items like monk amulets and more. I have in no other country in the world seen so many idols and magic items as in Thailand. A whole industry lives from it, and they are as innovative as any other industry: they offer a remedy for any occasion in life. You want the girl next door? Have to get rid of your toothache? Need a lot of cash? There is what for everything. The story for what a certain item is good for can change considerably, depending on the memory, phantasy and whish-thinking of the people who 'use' them.
Some of the items are of a very sinister nature and remind rather to voodoo.
Apart from the simple items who are new, there are also antique pieces to buy, who can gain a high price. Particularly if there is something of the 'real' Buddha inside the amulet, like a Buddha hair, a faction of Buddha's robe, an eyelid of Buddha, but also mortal remains of highly revered monks of the past and present, of who is believed they hold strong powers or are Boddhisatva, already enlightened.
At some temples the monks do a great effort in directing prayers to amulets to infuse them with spiritual power. If the monks are revered, the items can gain high market prices.
People in dangerous professions often use amulets as life protection. It's said that the Thai Army equipped their soldiers in the south, who are fighting against Muslim rebells.
Funny to see sometimes the 'experts', who prove amulets with a magnifying glass, as if it were a rare, precious coin or stamp, to make sure that it is an original and not counterfeited.
By the way, so far I see things, Buddha himself would have barely agreed with the idea of supernatural power in such items. He would probably have called such believes illusions.
When believers claim that their amulet is a failure, salespeople usually respond with the argument that one has to be a faithful enough Buddhist to make them work out.
It's incredible that the fetishism is treated like a science, but a great deal of people here believe in the power of amulets in different degrees. There is a great deal of literature about these things and frequently appearing magazines are to see at many kiosks.
All images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2012, 2013, 2016
East and north of the Grand Palace stretches an area with a lot of historical buildings. Among them are as well many of these typical 19th and 20th century two storey shop houses. Most of them are still in use as what they always were: a shop downstairs, and housing for the shopkeeper family upstairs. In this area are also the giant swing, the city pillar shrine, Mahakan fortress, the democracy monument and a number of old wats.
The Democracy Monument
One of Bangkok's landmarks, often one of the first remarkable monuments a foreign visitor get's to see when arriving in the city
, is the Democracy Monument. It lies inmiddle of a huge roundabout at Rachadamnoen Road, the royal highway, at two thirds on the way from Sanam Luang to the Golden Mount. It has so much to do with democracy like a tiger with vegetarianism.
The Giant Swing
A really peculiar sight on Rattanakosin Island is the Giant Swing (Sao Ching Cha), which is placed in a square surrounded by roads. It's a huge, 30m tall wooden structure with a red paint coat. It was built here in 1784. It's meaning goes back to an ancient royal court ceremony which was held annually already in historic Sukothai and later also in Ayutthaya. The ceremony is part of the ten days festival at the Brahman New Year.
In the time of king Rama II (1809 - 1824) the swing got hit by lightning. The ceremony wasn't held then until a restoration in 1920. Since there happened several severe accidents, the ceremony was ceased in 1935. More restorations happened in 1959 and 2005. New, massive teak logs were brought from Phrae Province in northern Thailand. A new inauguration was done in 2007.
Khao San Road
The traveller and touristic heart of Bangkok is the surrounding of Khao San Road, about a kilometer north of the Grand Palace, still on Rattanakosin Island.
Khao San means as much as raw, white rice, and refers to the early times of the street, which was built in the late 19th century. Khao San Road was the center for the rice trade in Siam's capital, and a number of mercantile buildings was errected here.
Since Bangkok's airport Suvarnabhumi is the central gate to Southeast Asia for the majority of tourists from overseas, it's the startig point for the most visitors to travel other parts of Thailand and also the neighboring countries. The travel agencies here sell a wide variety of tours all around the country and more.
Wat Chana Songkhram is, by the way, a foundation from the early times of Rattanakosin Bangkok. It was founded by Mon People who supported the Siamese in their wars against the Burmese invaders in the 18th century. Now it's a greater temple district inmiddle of busy Bangkok and one of the quiet spots in the city.
Wat Bowonniwet is one of the temples who rank highest in Thailand. It was built in 1829, and three kings spend some time there as buddhist monks: king Mongkut, Rama VII and king Bhumibol Adulyadej. The main attraction is an old Buddha which is said was created in the year 1357. The wall paintings of the temple alone are worth a visit, for they represent Thai classic temple paintings, although they could need some restoration.
In the northeast of Rattanakosin Island, between the tourist center of Khao San and Fort Sumen, lies a small Muslim community. On the other side of the main Chakrabongse Road is Banglamphu Market, where more masses of clothes and other accessoires are for sale.
Phra Sumen Fortress
At the northern edge of Rattanakosin Island, where Klong Bang Lamphu joins Chao Phraya River, lies the fortress of Phra Sumen. Built in 1783, it was one of fourteen fortresses protecting Rattanakosin. It became obsolete in the 19th century and is now only one of two of the former fortresses around Rattanakosin who are left. As many historical spots in Thailand, it's nicely restorated and surrounded by a green, clean park (Santichaiprakarn Park) at the riverbanks, where people can have a rest from the city's hectic. River views are great here, one has a good view for example on modernist Rama VIII Bridge further north. At nightime the fort is illuminated.
The really nice river promenade here continues southwards by a narrow concrete gangway directly along the riverbanks until Phra Pin Klao Bridge. Along the way are two of the ferry piers, where one can enter the next ferry boat to travel the river up- or downwards.
Thonburi, the place which marked the historical beginning of the megacity at the western banks of the Chao Phraya River, is no more that central, although still very crowded. Here are more house blocks situated, and furtherly to the west the city is still largely expanding, looking much shabbier than the city parts east of the river. The buildings are also far not as high west of the river.
Thonburi was the first capital of Siam after the downfall of Ayutthaya. Siam was called in that times also the kingdom of Thonburi. It's nowadays a part of Bangkok at the western banks of the Chao Phraya River, opposite to the Grand Palace. Until 1971, Thonburi was also the name of a province of Thailand, which included all the districts of Bangkok west of the river. Nowadays Thonburi district is much smaller, and excludes even Wat Arun and the former palace of king Taksin (what is now in Bangkok Yai district) as well as Thonburi Railway Station (which lies now in Bangkok Noi district). However, in a wider and traditional sense these places are included here in the Thonburi chapter.
Here, close to Bangkok Noi Railway Station, lies also Siriraj Hospital, Thailand's oldest and one of the most reputable hospitals in the country. The upper levels are reserved for the king of Thailand. The hospital cooperates with nearby Mahidol University. Interestingly, there is also a medical museum integrated.
Closeby here is also Thonburi's 'Royal Barges National Museum'.
Wat Arun - The Temple of Dawn
Another outstanding building in Bangkok is Wat Arun, the 'temple of dawn', at the western bank of the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi, opposite to the Grand Palace. It's a unique temple with a very tall and massive central prang (spire). Anyone who comes along on the river will quickly notice it. Particularly remarkable is that the buildings are coated with millions of china tiles and shells, which makes it clearly distinctive from all other temples in Bangkok.
Access to Wat Arun is best by using the river ferry, who stops at Wat Arun Pier. When I visited the sight in 2006, entrance was free. In later years a fee for foreigners was invented. It was also possible to climb up the stairway of the central prang to the uppermost, the third level. Since the climb is very steep, accidents happened and now it's restricted for visitors to the first level only.
Thonburi Railway Station
In Thonburi lies former Thonburi Railway Station, a small station at the beginning of the old route to Burma via the Three Pagoda Pass. This line was built in World War II under supervision of the Japanese army and became in a tragically way famous, for a great number of prisoners of war and Asian people, who were forced to built the 'death railway', lost their lives due to the hardships. The best known part of the line is the famous 'bridge over the River Kwai' in Kanchanabury.
Now the line is partially still in use until Kanchanabury and a few kilometers behind. For Thai People it's usually a normal mean of transport, for tourists, however, it's a tour to the stations of the death railway like Kanchanabury Bridge and Hellfire Pass. Foreigners pay therefore a multiple of the ticket price Thai's pay.
It's hard to say where actually Bangkok's center is. Apart from the historical center Rattanakosin Island, it's rather the wider area between Hua Lamphong Railway Station and Siam Square.
Hua Lamphong, Bangkok Railway Staton
Hualamphong railway station is an impressing building, and the history of Thailand's railway makes an interesting story itself. Everywhere around are old steam engine locomotives displayed. The first line opened in 1893 between Bangkok and Pak Nam at the seaside, being 25km long. In 1924 the southern railway line reached then still sleepy Hat Yai and triggered it's boom.
The Thai railway is planning massive expansions. The northeastern line via Nong Khai to Vientiane will be a four line highspeed connection which get's prolongued through north Laos to Kunming in Yunnan, China. A similar expansion is planned for the northern line, which ends now still in Chiang Mai. The plans to expand it to Chiang Rai are already years old. Moreover, it's planned to connect it also via Chiang Khong through Laos (crossing the new Mekong Bridge at Chiang Khong) with Yunnan. These two lines will be then a connection altogether between Beijing and Singapore.
Inmiddle of Bangkok's center, Lumphini Park is a large green lung, a refuge from the hectic and traffic of the city. The name reminds to the birthplace of Buddha in Nepal. Other spellings are Lumpini or Lumpinee. The Thais call the park Suan Lumphini, short Suan Lum.
Dominating in the park are above all the bigger lakes. They create already a nice microclimate, cooling down the tropical heat a bit. About 2.5km plastered trails lead through the park in total, on which vehicles are prohibited. No blasted cars in the park. There is plenty of short cut lawn and a couple of buildings and trees. The park is surrounded by a wall with heavy, metal gates; it's open from the early mornings to the late evenings. The whole park area comprises of 576,000km2.
Lumphini Park may have been the model for the establishment of many such parks all over in Thailand's cities and towns. It's always a highlight in any Thai place to visit the local park and having a rest from the din, stress an pollution of the modern cities.
Siam Square and Rattanakosin Island are two central, but complementary parts of Bangkok. While Rattanakosin is the historical and cultural center of the city, Siam Square is the modern, commercial center. The history of this city part goes not further back than to the mid 1960s, when Chulalongkorn University started to rent or sell real estate to gain an income from it. A boom started in the 1970s and continued over the next decades. Siam Square grew up and is now symbolizing that Thailand is a newly industrialized country with all the 'postmodern' madness what is coming with that.
Siam Square is not a square in the actual meaning; it's a city part with many streets, many of them smaller sideroads (sois) around broad Rama I Road. Here concentrate the luxurious shopping malls for the wealthier, mostly Thais, but also western expatriots and shoppers from neighbouring countries. Huge shopping malls like Siam Center, Siam Discovery and Siam Paragon are here, together with many restaurants, cafes, hotels, cinemas, banks, schools and more. Further east are many embassies.
Apart from all the blasted business, there are some interesting points at Siam Square. There is a Madame Tussaud's branch with a certain focus on Thai royalty, together with some more museums like Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre and Siam Ocean World, the largest aquarium in Southeast Asia. Besides, Erawan Shrine is also situated in Siam Square.
In the 2010 demonstrations thousands of 'redshirt' protesters occupied the area for weeks and blocked the holy business.
As a commercial center, traffic is particularly choking here. There are two skytrain lines going through the area, and many buses from other parts of Bangkok are stopping here.
For more shopping, Patpong district along Silom Road houses also a number of modern shopping centers, while Chinatown is a place where mostly typical Asian goods, usually foods, spices, clothes and much, much more is dealt with.
The for Bangkokians very famous Erawan Shrine is a brahma/hindu shrine in central Bangkok on the ground of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. It is a place of worship for many Thai People who pray for money, business success, love, health, enlightenment or other purposes. For bigger wishes the prayers can hire a dancing ensemble which performs traditional Thai dances together with an orchestra, to please Brahma. Most worshipers come in the mornings or the evenings between seven and eight o'clock. Usual offerings are flower garlands, candles, incence sticks, fruits and other items. There are dozends of shops around who sell items for sacrifice.
Particularly interesting is the history of Erawan Shrine. When the Erawan Hotel, a government owned building, was under construction in the mid 1950s, a number of accidents happened. Workers died at the building site and a ship, which brought marble from Italy for the construction, sank on open sea. Workers refused to continue and Luang Suwicharnpat, an astrologer, was asked for advice. He diagnosed the reason for the misadventures in having done the foundation stone laying at a bad day, and suggested the implementation of a shrine for Brahma together with a spirit house.
After the construction and application of the shrine, what was done by the Fine Arts Department in 1956, the trouble, as it is said, ceased. The Erawan Hotel was demolished in 1991 and replaced by the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.
There were two attacks on the shrine until now. The first happened in March 2006. An apparently mentally disturbed man demolished the shrine with a hammer inmiddle of the night. Two street sweepers, who witnessed the incident, went there and beat the man to death. It became a rather bizarre state affair for then primeminister Thaksin Shinawatra, who personally cared for the shrine's restoration and reimplantation, which was done in a pompous and ceremonial manner.
A much worse attack happened on August 17th, 2015, when a powerful bomb exploded at 7 p.m. and killed 25 people, hurting 125 more. In the aftermath of the attack the Thai police arrested two men who were sued for the crime. Both of them claimed being innocent. They are of Chinese nationality and Uyghur ethnicity. The supposed reason for the attack was the delivery of a group of Uyghurs some months ago, who were in Thailand on the way to Turkey for applying assylum, to China in the time before the attack.
It looked to me as if the Ganesha in the neighbouring shrine is nowadays a more revered idol than the original Brahma. Since Ganesha is the god of wealth and success, he represents much more the aspiration of modern man. Someone, together with his family, even added the stone tablet to the shrine in which some instructions are inscribed.
All images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2006, 2015, 2016
There is also the famous Jim Thompson house, a traditional teak house what serves nowadays as a museum. Jim Thompson was one of the Westerners who made a remarkable career in Thailand by promoting Thai silk. He led an adventurous life, and his end is still obscure. He disappeared traceless on a short stroll in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
North of Rattanakosin Island, connected by Rachadamnoen Road (Klang and Nok, the royal highway), lies Dusit District. In the district lie most of the major administration centers of Thailand, the House of Parliament, the seat of the government and others. The National Library and several royal universities are placed here. Originally, Dusit was exclusively a royal domain, built up under the order of king Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who had plans for a new palace ensemble after his journey to Europe in 1897.
Wimanmek Palace, the largest teak wood building worldwide, was Chulalongkorn's residence for a few years until 1908. Chitralada Palace, the currently residence of the king of Thailand, was built in 1925. Anantasamakhom Throne Hall and Wat Benchamabophit, the royal temple, are two more examples of a number of more buildings in the district. At Wasukri Pier is the storage for the royal barges. All the palace buildings here are summarized as Dusit Palace.
Later, parts of the royal estates got other functions. Dusit Zoo is in a central position as a former botanical garden.
As the still surrounding of the royal palace and many royal estates, the district is distinglished clean, green, large and representative.
Chitralada Royal Villa or Palace is the inofficial residence of king Bhumibol (Rama IX) and queen Sirikit of Thailand. The palace buildings are not open for the public and surrounded by a wide water trench. King Bhumibol decided to move the residence to here after the death of his elder brother, king Mahidol (Rama VIII), in the Grand Palace in 1946.
The royal villa was built by king Vajiravudh in 1913 and incorporated into Dusit Palace Compound in 1925.
In the large area around the villa are some representative buildings placed. More interestingly are the experimental agricultural fields, a rice mill, a fishfarm and a candle factory. A greenhouse collects a variety of Thailands endangered plants. These installations enjoy some fame in Thailand.
Thailand's largest and oldest zoopark started as a botanical garden of king Chulalongkorn (Rama V), which was situated between Chittralada Palace and Vimanmek Palace and Anantasamakhom Throne Hall. Nowadays, neighbouring the zoo to the west, lies Thailand's House of Parliament. The establishment of a zoo there goes back to an initiative of primeminister and field marshall Plaek Phibunsongkram in 1938.
About a quarter of the 20 hectar large area is covered by lakes. It's great to stroll around in the green and discover the great variety of animals living here. A tourist train carries visitors in a circle around through the zoopark's stations. At the lake, pedalos can be rent for sailing on the water. A playground for kids exists and a small museum of the Thai Air Force, where some items of Bangkok's history in the Second World War are exhibited. An old air raid shelter is to see here as well. At certain times are also animal shows presented; I saw one with a trained seal. However, I am sceptical about such shows and how the animals are treated for...
The Slums of Bangkok
The highest concentration of Bangkoks 800 slums is in the south, near the city's port. Verymost of the foreign visitors of the city never get a glance on them.
However, it's actually not really worth to come to Bangkok for doing much sightseeing, except one is interested in culture, history or it's peculiar nightlife. Patpong district, particularly the sideroads near Silom Road, change at sunset into one of the world's most notorious redlight districts.
Bangkok is the central hub for tourists and travellers into whole Southeast Asia, because it's hosting the biggest airport in the world region and most flights from America, Europe, Japan and Australia and more and more other Asian countries arrive in Bangkok. From here on tourism finds it's way to other places in Thailand and the neighbouring countries of Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Burma/Myanmar, Vietnam or even Indonesia.
Bangkok's transport system is not the worst. There are three classes of buses to almost everywhere. The 'upper class' has air conditioner and the vehicles are as modern as in western cities, the 'second class' has fans inside and the most frequently running buses are old monsters, run down, noisy, blasting out black clouds of smog, but they are at least cheap (free for Thai People) and commute frequently. The destinations are given in Thai language, so most foreigners have to ask other passengers which bus to take to go whereever. But that always works, for Thai People are generally glad to help foreigners. The bus drivers or conductors are also mostly willing to help.
There is a ferry system as well. It's anyway worth to use the passenger ferries on the Chao Praya River to come around in Bangkok and getting a view of the city from the big river. Another ferry transport is on Klong San Sap, running between the Golden Mount via downtown (Jim Thompson's House, Siam Square) further on many kilometers through the city. It's cheap and quick and one get's to see Bangkok from another perspective. Passing by some ugly slums in Bangkok's center, for example.
Additionally there are the skytrains, two lines over 31km distance with 30 stations. They transport 600,000 rides every day. The BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) skytrains run since December 1999.
Since 2004 there is even a subway, MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit), in Bangkok. It's running over 27km with 18 stations (blue line). It's extension and two more lines are under construction, and some further lines are in planning. Now it serves already 240,000 rides a day.
Since December 2009 there is also another skytrain running from the inner city to the international airport (Suvarnabhumi Airport Rail Link).
Of course there are everywhere taxis as well and these notorious tuk-tuk's, motorbike rikshaws, of who are plenty, particularly around Khao San district and other touristic places. The drivers are always addressing tourists on the streets: 'Hello sir, where are you going?'. They seem to be the cheapest possibility to go around individually, but the drivers are unreliable and often try to get tourists into certain jewellery or Indian tailor shops where they get a commission from the owners for bringing potential customers. That's time consuming and annoying, because the shop assistants try hard to make one buying anything. Although there is of course no obligation to buy stuff there, pressure is set on one and it seems many tourists buy what, doesn't matter they need it or not.
Bangkok is also the center of Thailand's traffic system in general. When coming from the south and heading to the center, the north or northeast of the country, it's practically impossible to bypass Bangkok. The big highways concentrate on Bangkok, and the railway system does as well.
In September 2006 the new international airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport, opened. I was personally on board of one of the very first arrivals there. Apart from a waiting time of not more than an hour for the baggage, the service started quite well. The former international airport, Don Muang, is now reduced to domestic and charter flights. Though, the capacity of Suvarnabhumi International Airport is already at it's limits and it's considered to reactivate international flights at Don Muang again for it's relief.
Bangkok by walking
The best choice when one wants to see most of a place is to walk around. But, that's really tough in these megacities like Bangkok. It's a real strain, for all the crowd and heavy traffic one has every second to deal with. One is forced to spend more attention to the traffic than to sights or topics of interest of whatever kind, because traffic is simply a letal threat. The driving style here is more aggressive than in the countryside, although it's still modest compared to other countries. Thai's drive normally slowly and give a pedestrian a chance to cross the roads. This mentality is in the dense urban traffic here still alive, but not that much as elswere in Thailand. Vehicles of all kind, in many cases big busses, block sight to points of interest or for orientation.
Generally it's obvious that this traffic system with private cars for everybody is generally not a sufficient and sustainable way of organizing traffic. That's so for many reasons (like oil shortages and wars for oil, tanker desasters with loosing huge amounts of oil in the sea etc.), but most obviously it's an enormous threat of health for the people, due to pollution, accident dangers and all the huge amount of space (wide roads, parkings) cars need. Car traffic destroys cities and countrysides. An abolishment of cars is urgently needed, and cars must be replaced by well organized public transport. But, there is no thought about that among politicians - it's too obviously that all this harm to people and the environment has to be, for the benefit of big industries.